Who Sang It Best? "Angels We Have Heard on High"
An Angelic Birth Announcement
On the night Jesus was born, the shepherds in the fields cast their gazes skywards as angels rejoiced in song. In celebrating the birth of the newborn King, the sweet melody of the angels' exuberance rang from the mountaintops. They invited the humble shepherds to Bethlehem to gather manger-side on bended knee to behold the miracle of His birth. "Gloria in excelsis Deo" they exclaimed ("Glory to God in the highest").
So is the story of "Angels We Have Heard on High," a popular Christmastime hymn. Few holiday songs are as impassioned as this.
The basis for the modern hymn is the 18th-century French carol, "Les Anges dans nos Campagnes (Angels in Our Countryside)." It draws upon the Christmas Eve custom among shepherds in southern France of calling out "Gloria in excelsis Deo" from their respective hillsides.
Although the composer and lyricist are unknown, the original author is believed to be from Languedoc, France. The carol was first published in 1855, and in 1862 Bishop James Chadwick translated the song into English. There have been several adaptations of the song, while a handful of other songs share only its tune. The version we use today was published in 1916 in an American carol collection, Carols Old and Carols New.
If you're a fan of this beautiful song (like me), you may have strong opinions about how it should be executed. Do you prefer a traditional choir better or a popular artist? Suspend judgment for a few minutes while you listen to a variety of approaches, artists, and genres, representing pop, rock, country, and even metal (believe it or not!). Then, weigh in and tell us who you think sang it best!
"Who Sang It Best?": Here's How It Works
With many artists singing the same Christmas tunes, the sleigh has become overloaded. Let's rank them and cross some versions off the list.
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with either a traditional choir rendition or the original, recorded version of a popular Christmas song that has been covered multiple times. Then we present a set of contenders—artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover versions honor the original style while others are reinterpretations.
Since the original song version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. Instead, we display it first for comparison, then present up to 14 contenders in ranked order. Vote on your preferences:
Do you prefer the traditional choir version of the song or a cover by a popular artist?
Of all the cover versions, which you prefer?
The Traditional Song
Traditional Choir Version
"Angels We Have Heard on High" by Cambridge Singers (1997)
Oh, those high notes rise straight to the heavens! Directed by world-renown modern composer John Rutter, this choir sings with such unbridled glee that one can almost envision the angels themselves celebrating the miracle of Jesus' birth. They sing straight from their hearts rather than their hymnals. Certainly, there is some measure of safety in numbers, as traditional versions of the hymn such as this tend to be structured, deliberate, and beautifully predictable. It significantly resembles what you hear in your local church, only better.
Still, when it comes to Christmas music for personal enjoyment, not everyone prefers soaring vocals or an ecclesiastical choir, particularly when an individual singer or their favorite popular band offer so many satisfying alternatives. Many artists take creative chances with the hymn. With so many options available, you might wonder who sang it best? Let's take a look!
Which version would you rather listen to -- a traditional choir version or your favorite cover version by a popular artist?
Popular Artists' Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by Home Free (2014)
Given the way that Home Free's vocals effortlessly take flight, you may suspect these young men are hiding wings and halos. This a capella country group rose to fame in 2013 when they won the fourth season of NBC's The Sing-Off, a year after Pentatonix won the competition. Throughout the lyrics of this inspired rendition, Home Free's vocals float and twirl, and musically they dip their wings in jubilation. They uphold Christ with cherubic harmony.
Beautiful as their version is, however, perhaps you were like me and wondered what was going on with their pronunciation of "excelsis" in "Gloria in excelsis Deo." I was distracted by their insistence on singing it as "ek shell cease," but apparently that's the church Latin version, not a lisp. (Several others on this list do it, too.) Who knew?
2. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by Andrea Bocelli (2009)
Oprah Winfrey has complimented Andrea Bocelli's talent by saying that "when I hear Andrea sing, I burst into tears," and Celine Dion has remarked that "if God would have a singing voice, He must sound a lot like Andrea Bocelli."
Unfortunately, when listening to Bocelli's version of "Angels We Have Heard on High," the first thing you'll notice is that the globally popular Italian tenor is not belting out this song in English—at least not exclusively so. While I agree that Bocelli is blessed with a spectacular pop/operatic voice, he sings this hymn in about half Italian/half English. For an English speaker like me who prefers to sing along to their Christmas music, that's a drawback. And it's the only reason I didn't rank Bocelli's version first. Bocelli's version omits the last verse ("See Him in a manger laid. . ."), but that's no matter.
The instrumentals, which include ringing bells and stringed instruments, grow dramatically louder in the last portion of the song as the tenor repeats the lyrics (thankfully) in English. With the powerful choir backing Bocelli, one can imagine the gates of heaven opening up in a triumphant salute as Bocelli proclaims glory of God with his magical voice. I simply adore his finish. It made me want to play it again and again.
Bocelli became blind at age 12, the result of congenital glaucoma and being struck in the head during a soccer match. He showed a precociousness for music early in childhood, but first became a lawyer rising to fame in 1992. Bocelli is internationally heralded as a singer who brings an operatic sound to the masses.
3. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by Josh Groban (featuring Brian McKnight) (2007)
Combine the formality and technical proficiency of Josh Groban's voice with the emotional warmth and light of R&B singer Brian McKnight's and what you have is this remarkable gem. Like many other Christmas songs released by Groban over the years, "Angels We Have Heard on High" became a hit on the adult contemporary chart. The trumpets announcing the Savior's birth are especially compelling instrumentals.
Groban first rose to fame when he was requested to substitute for an ailing Andrea Bocelli in a 1998 Grammy Awards Show duet rehearsal with Celine Dion. The young singer stepped up to the opportunity. The following week, Groban was invited to appear on The Rosie O'Donnell Show, then he sang at the 1999 California gubernatorial inauguration, and he has never looked back.
4. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by For King & Country (2017)
Much like a heartbeat, high emotions and dramatic pauses accentuate this holiday song's lyrics. The version is quick paced, uplifting, and full of zest, and it reminds me of the rousing folk rock sound of Mumford & Sons.
For King & Country is a pair of Australian brothers that plays Christian rock music. They've found success on the Christian charts in the last decade and have had several singles cross over to the mainstream Top 40 charts. In their toe-tapping version of "Angels We Have Heard on High," the group modifies the order of the verses so that the song ends on an especially worshipful note with the following lines repeated twice:
Come adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord newborn King!
5. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by David Archuleta (2009)
The son of two musicians, David Archuleta found modest success after he was the runner-up in the seventh season of American Idol in 2008. Unfortunately, he has scored only one Top 40 hit on mainstream charts, thus making him a one-hit wonder. On the bright side, however, Christmas music fits him well judging from his efforts on this rendition of "Angels We Have Heard on High." (If you want to hear a truly stellar performance, then listen to his 2018 holiday song, "Angels from the Realms of Glory," with Peter Hollens and The Piano Guys.)
In this version of "Angels We Have Heard on High," David Archuleta takes creative liberties with voice inflection when it comes to the "Gloria in excelsis Deo" line. Like the group Home Free, he also opts for the church Latin pronunciation. If you listen closely, you'll notice that Archuleta replaces the usual last two stanzas with the following lyrics:
Jesu, joy of man's desiring
Holy wisdom, love most bright.
Although Archuleta offers us a pretty standard version of this song, his voice is nonetheless lofty and sweet. It honors his subject matter. A Mormon, Archuleta took two years off from his career while he served on a mission trip in Chile.
6. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by Aretha Franklin (2008)
No other rendition of "Angels We Have Heard on High" has made me want to sway along with the music, but the soulful voice of Aretha Franklin does. She offers up this R&B interpretation of the song, taking her own sweet time of over five minutes to complete it.
I liked that the background instrumentals stayed in the background where they were meant to be; nobody overpowers Aretha's voice. The Queen of Soul changes the ordering of the verses, omits the second verse ("Shepherds, why this jubilee? . . ."), and modifies the lyrics, so if you're singing along just listen instead. Chances are, you'll find that you'll be swaying too.
7. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by Sixpence None the Richer (2008)
In this alternative rock version, there's a simplicity to the string plucking, the steady beat, and the mellow voice of the soloist. However, the childlike vocals sometimes struggle to compete with the with background music, and there are places where the lyrics are poorly articulated (I didn't hear one "g" sound in any "Gloria" utterance). In addition, the song just peters out at end. That shouldn't happen with a powerful hymn like "Angels We Have Heard on High." The lyrics have been modified, too, although in a manner that flows nicely and doesn't betray that intended meaning of the song.
Sixpence None the Richer is an alternative Christian rock band that welcomed international success with two Top 40 hits: "Kiss Me" (1998) and a cover version of "There She Goes" (1999).
8. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by Pentatonix (2013)
Pentatonix's rendition of this hymn is a musical mess, and as talented as they are, they do this gorgeous song a disservice. Nevermind that this is by far YouTube's most viewed version of "Angels We Have Heard on High" or that the group usually aces their songs. They missed the mark on this one.
The diverse, five-member group first found fame in 2011 when they won the third season of NBC's a capella singing competition,The Sing-Off. They deserve credit for trying to make this Christmas hymn accessible and relatable to young audiences and for taking creative chances. However, beatboxing—those unusual mouth sounds that are meant to sound like a percussion instrument? Well, that's a total misfit for a song like this. (The group uses it to segue one lead singer to another.)
In addition, the group suffers from odd vocal inflections, and they lack a sufficient number of high range vocalists to successfully pull off a song like this. Instead of being so over-the-top creative with their approach, why didn't mezzo-soprano Kirstin Maldonado take a more prominent vocal role? If you're a Pentatonix devotee, then, sorry because unfortunately, "Angels We Have Heard on High" is not an example of them at their finest.
9. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by Relient K (2003)
This vigorous rock version demonstrates that a Christmas song doesn't have to be choir-based and slow to send it on up to the Big Guy in the sky. Relient K is a Christian alternative rock band with a history of crossover appeal in pop and rock markets.
Boisterous and fun, their version of "Angels We Have Heard on High" is heavy on electric guitar, although the rapid-fire pace does make me wonder why they are in such a hurry? They clock in at under two minutes, whereas most versions take three to five minutes. They unnecessarily race through this solemn song although they do so with enthusiasm. Traditionalists won't enjoy Relient K's creativity here, but hey, at least they took a chance and did something totally unexpected with this Christmas song.
10. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by Hillsong (2005)
For such an exquisite hymn, it puzzles me why Hillsong hollows out the (substantive) lyrics here. First, there's the rather flat, uninspiring lead voice that competes with the overpowering background music. Certainly one would think that with resources as extensive as Hillsong's they could have found a more angelic, compelling voice within their ministry. The lead singer repeats the opening verse then eviscerates the rest of the number by deleting about 10 lines of the traditional lyrics, replacing them with simpler exaltations. There's a whole lot of "Gloria!"
Hillsong is a Pentecostal megachurch started in Australia that has since grown to include satellite churches in the US and Europe.
11. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by Collin Raye (1996)
In the early 1990s, this country music star was at the top of his game. He topped the country charts with number one hits such as "Love, Me" and "In This Life." However, there were tiny hints in 1996 that the veneer of success was beginning to crack. Then in 1999, there were more telling signs as his songs failed to chart as high. Suddenly in the 2000s the party was over. Fans can be fickle. The country music industry, in particular, discards its singing talent at rapid rates.
Perhaps Collin Raye's career downturn could have been predicted based on his plain albeit fairly pleasant rendition of this song. These vocals are not the output one expects from a star at the height of their career. He delivers merely a "good enough" performance that lacks emotional conviction and comes off as sounding like a neighbor or relative who is performing a solo at church rather than the country star he was at the time.
12. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by Christina Aguilera (2000)
Histrionic. That's how I'd describe this rendition. Neither the angels nor Jesus would want anyone to be this far over the top.
With a vocal range that spans four octaves, Christina Aguilera didn't need to dish out all of those "yeah, yeahs," the "ooh hoo hoos," and the "Glo-glo-glo-glorias." Using so many vocal utterances as filler serves the same purpose of saying "um" too much when speaking. It detracts from the meaning of the message and focuses the listener instead on the unusual mechanics. And unusual it is.
The choir supporting the pop singer was especially impressive, although Aguilera didn't need to add the male soloist for only one verse in the last half of the song. When Aguilera drops the traditional fourth verse ("See Him in a manger laid") in favor of an oversung outro of repeated lines, the net effect is that it left me to wonder whether this is about holiday rejoicing or just showing off?
13. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by Kathy Mattea (2003)
I imagine Jesus is shaking his head on this one. I normally like country artist Kathy Mattea, but in this version, she utterly shreds "Angels We Have Heard on High."
At first, Mattea takes a minimalist approach by allowing her vibrato-filled voice to be the focus (whether that's good, bad, or indifferent). Then everything goes off the rails when she gets all groovy with fast strumming country guitars. Call it jammin' for Jesus. Her speed of presentation, her reluctance to reach for the high notes, and the way she allows the song to fizzles out in the end together do not appropriately represent the sanctity of the song. Leave this version alone.
14. "Angels We Have Heard on High" by Grave Robber (2016)
Whoa. What is this? Believe it or not, those are proud Christians shouting their praise for Jesus. Shelve your judgments because they aren't cursing, and they're totally man-hugging those lyrics, including all the "Gloria in excelsis Deo" lines as they race through the song at a frenetic pace. (Like many other artists, the band drops the last traditional verse of the song that starts with, "See Him in a manger laid.")
Nobody predicted "Angels We Have Heard on High" could be performed like this. Grave Robber is a death metal band whose members sport zombie masks and costumes and are known by stage names like Wretched, Viral, Carcass, and Plague. (Other cleverly named members such as Rot, Dr. Cadaver, Maggot, and DeMuerte are no longer with the group.) In this song, there is certainly a shock factor mixing the punk genre and holiday music, but Grave Robber is proof of two things:
- There's more than one way to musically celebrate the Savior's birth and
- Jesus does have a sense of humor.
Needless to say, this song selection, and indeed the genre, is an acquired taste. They have teased that a Christmas album may be forthcoming.
Readers Weigh In
Reader Poll: Your Favorite Cover Version
So which CONTENDER do YOU think sang it best?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 FlourishAnyway